SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- North Korea may be able to develop nuclear-tipped long-range missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland in less than a decade if the country keeps up its nuclear ambitions, a former U.S. military commander in South Korea said Friday.
"If North Korea continues its military first policy and continues to put its full effort into nuclear missile development, it is my assessment that it could develop an operational ICBM capable of targeting the United States in the next five to seven years," Ret. Gen. Burwell Bell said in an email interview with Yonhap News Agency.
North Korea, defying international warnings, conducted its third nuclear test on Feb. 12, two months after its long-range rocket launch. Many now wonder whether the isolated communist nation has mastered the technology to build a small warhead to be mounted on a long-range missile capable of hitting the U.S.
Bell, who served as commander of the U.S. Forces in South Korea from 2006-2008, said he believes that North Korea can be a full-blown nuclear and missile developer within a decade.
Although it remains largely unclear whether Pyongyang used a uranium-based device for its latest test, Bell said the North is rapidly nearing its goal of developing nuclear weapons "capable of massive destruction of civilian and military targets."
"North Korea's military-first policy will remain one of the largest threats to regional and world peace," he said.
In the face of increasing North Korean threats, Bell said South Korea and the United States should further solidify their alliance. About 28,500 U.S. troops are currently stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against the North.
As a tit-for-tat response to the North's nuclear weapons development, some call for re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear bombs to South Korea that were withdrawn when the two Koreas signed a deal in 1992, pledging to make the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.
Bell dismissed as counterproductive such a call for re-deployment of nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula, saying that a U.S. nuclear umbrella is enough for South Korea to defend itself against the North.
"From a military perspective, it is not necessary for tactical nuclear weapons to be placed on the Korean Peninsula for America's nuclear umbrella to be militarily effective," Bell said. "United States delivery systems from off-shore military platforms can easily place small and precise nuclear weapons onto any desired target in North Korea."
However, if Seoul does request Washington to re-deploy nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. government should consider it in a "very serious and thoughtful (manner)," he said.
Bell also said the two allies should not rule out any options, including a "preemptive strike," to prevent Pyongyang from making any attempt to use its nuclear weapons.
"Failure to have such a plan would amount to dereliction of duty," he added.
Military and security officials in Seoul worry the North may launch provocations using mobile missiles, called KN-08 missiles, which are installed on the Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL), as they can be easily hidden from satellites.
The KN-08 missiles, which were first shown in a military parade in Pyongyang in April last year, have prompted outside military experts to reassess the North's missile capabilities. The focus of such a review is now on whether the North's missile technology is improving at a pace that could pose a new challenge.
Bell said the KN-08 and its carrier have not yet been operationally deployed, but the fact that the missile carrier TEL was apparently imported from China, the North's last remaining major ally, is "a very disturbing issue."
"It indicates that China continues to provide technology and capability for the North to threaten its neighbors and indeed the world," he said. "China should be harshly condemned for assisting North Korea in advancing its capability to destabilize the region and threaten its neighbors."